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Deena McMahon on Childhood Sexual Abuse

I have worked with hundreds of sexual abuse survivors, both adults and children. In 2011, I was hired by a plaintiff’s attorney in a civil case involving more than 500 individuals who had been sexually and/or physically abused by Jesuit priests in Washington and Montana. I interviewed many of the claimants to help determine the extent of the damage they had suffered. They were all Native American senior citizens who had grown up in Jesuit boarding schools. I’ve performed initial interviews, written forensic reports, defended those reports in court as a sexual abuse expert witness, and provided ongoing treatment. I’ve led groups for sexual abuse survivors and for pre-adolescent boys accused of sexual perpetration. With effective and early intervention, children who have been sexually abused can, more often than not, go on to lead very positive lives.

Sometimes therapy for these children involves working with their birth families; at other times it includes the foster or adoptive families. This work entails helping a child find a way to tell their story, to make sense of their story, and to gain a sense of emotional mastery over their past trauma. These children typically present with symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and/or depression. Therefore, therapy is complex, sensitive work that requires a child and their caregiver to participate in the therapeutic process. Adult survivors experience the same degrees of trauma and loss but often have the disadvantage of having lived with their trauma story for years without the necessary supportive services. Often in the therapeutic process, adults who present with symptoms of anxiety and depression discover they have an untold story of sexual abuse. Working with adult sexual abuse survivors can often include members of their birth family and current significant partners.